Smithsonian food service workers join UNITE HERE

More than 200 food service workers at two Smithsonian museums in Washington DC will soon be negotiating their first collective bargaining agreement with their employer, the Compass Group.

The workers, who work at the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of American History, joined UNITE HERE Local 25.

About one week before Christmas, the union announced that Compass Group, a global company that manages restaurants at the two museums, agreed to recognize and bargain with its workers’ union.

Food service and other low-wage workers working for private contractors at the 19 Smithsonian museums, galleries, and national zoo in the Washington DC area have engaged in a series of one-day strikes that began last spring. The workers are demanding a living wage.

“We deserve a living wage for the hard work we do,” said Luis (no last name given), who works at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s McDonald’s during the most recent strike on December 5. “It’s tough to keep a roof over our heads making $8.25 an hour.”

The work stoppages have been organized by Good Jobs Nation, a workers center supported by SEIU that helps low-wage workers working for federal contractors in the Washington DC area to organize and fight employer abuses.

A report by Amy Traub and Robert Hiltonsmith of Demos estimates that two million employees working for private businesses that contract with the federal government to provide services to the public throughout the US make $12 or less an hour.

A living wage calculator developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that a living wage in the Washington DC area is $13.68 an hour.

John W. Anderson, speaking to Washington Post reporter Michael Fletcher, said that he hopes a new collective bargaining agreement with Compass Group will lead to a raise, so that he and his son can move into an apartment of their own. He currently rents a room.

Anderson, a line cook at the American History Museum now makes $10.50 an hour. He told the Post what he hopes to gain by joining UNITE HERE.

“Our company has already taken some strides to help us,” he said. “Now I am excited that (joining the union) is another step closer to having somebody speaking for us so we can have some livable wages.”

Negotiations on the new contract are to begin in January.

IAM members in Washington to vote on Boeing offer–again

Members of IAM District 751 in the State of Washington will vote again on January 3 on whether to accept an offer of a contract extension made by Boeing, the world’s leading manufacturer of airplanes.

In one of the largest turnouts ever in a Boeing contract vote, members in November rejected a similar offer by a two to one margin.

Boeing’s two offers require District 751 members to accept steep concessions; in return, Boeing promises to build its new 777X airplane in the Puget Sound area where District 751 members live and work.

District 751 leaders refused to present Boeing’s latest offer to the membership because it was too much like the one workers rejected in November.

However, IAM International President Tom Buffenburger ordered the local to vote on the latest Boeing offer.

Boeing in November offered to extend the District’s 751 contract through 2024 and to build the 777X in the Puget Sound area if union members agreed to concessions that would eliminate their defined benefits pension plan, increase workers health care costs, freeze wages for new hires, and limit wage increases of current workers to an average of 0.5 percent over the next ten years.

When workers rejected Boeing’s concession demands, the company said that it might build the 777X elsewhere and announced that it had already solicited proposals from other possible sites including, Long Beach, California; Salt Lake City; Huntsville, Alabama; San Antonio; North Charleston, South Carolina; and St. Louis, Missouri.

In Missouri, state  leaders quickly put together a proposal that it hoped would lure Boeing jobs away from Washington.

Some labor leaders in Missouri played an important role in developing the proposal, and the Missouri Times reported that, “Labor leaders announced (that they would accept) a 24-hour work schedule on any Boeing related projects promising to shave two years off the planned five-year construction timetable without collecting overtime.”

According to the Times, “Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer for the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, said the 24-hour agreement was just one way Missouri could ‘highlight its strengths,’ in the process.”

Despite the proposals like the one that came from Missouri, Boeing continued to negotiate with District 751, and on December 12 announced that it had made a new offer and wanted union members to vote again.

But the new offer retained the same concession demands as the original offer.

The only difference between the new and old offers was that the new one included an additional $5,000 signing bonus payable in 2020, increased dental coverage, promised to keep the 737 MAX airplane production in Washington through 2024 (but the promise was not added to the contract), and retained the six-year progression for new hires to reach the maximum pay rate (the old offer extended the pay progression schedule to 22 years).

“Our members want to build the 777X, and we believe Boeing’s best chance for success for this vital airplane program is for our members to build it,” said Tom Wroblewski, District 751 president, when Boeing made its new offer. “However, the price Boeing demanded is too high.”

In exchange for the promise to build the 777X in Washington, Boeing wanted to

  • Eliminate the workers’ defined benefit pension and replace it with a 401(k) plan. Pension benefits earned up to 2016 would be frozen and the company would stop making contributions to the pension fund, putting the pensions of current and retired employees at risk.
  • Increase workers health care expenses to 16 percent of the plan’s cost and reduce coverage from 100 percent to 90 percent. Boeing would be able to make changes unilaterally to the workers’ health care coverage to avoid paying the Affordable Care Act’s excise tax. The union estimates that the offer if accepted would triple employee health care costs between 2016 and 2024.
  • Freeze pay for new hires until 2024 at which time says the union, new hire pay would be about the same as Washington state’s minimum wage, which is adjusted annually as the cost of living increases.

According to a flyer put out by the union, “Boeing’s proposals on pay and benefits will mean decreases in (members’) take home pay. Your monthly health care premiums will go up at least 10 percent each year, while you’ll see guaranteed wage increases averaging only 0.5 percent from 2016 to 2024.”

At the same time that Boeing is demanding that its workers accept these concessions, the Boeing board recently voted to make $10 billion available to buy back company stock.

The Washington legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee also agreed to a $9 billion worth of tax abatements if Boeing stayed in Washington.

District 751 leaders, who took a neutral position on the original Boeing offer, are now urging members to reject the new one.

“Due to the massive takeaways, your District 751 leadership is united with a recommendation that you reject this proposal,” read a letter sent to members. “You need to look at the facts of the economic destruction you would have to live under for the next 11 years, without any opportunity to change any provisions of the contract.”

The union will hold a rally on January 2. “Just say NO to the takeaway offer,” said the notice of the rally on the District 751 website.

LA social workers’ strike wins lower caseloads

A six-day strike by social workers at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) ended when Los Angeles County agreed to implement the workers’ plan for making victims of child abuse and neglect safer.

“It wasn’t easy, but we made history,” said Chychy Ekeochah, chair of the SEIU Local 721 bargaining committee. “Because we put it on the line, the county accepted our Child Safety Now plan. That’s a victory for us and for the children we serve.”

The Child Safety Now plan calls for increasing the number of children’s’ social workers at DCFS, reducing their caseloads, and forging a collaborative effort by the union, management, and stakeholders in the community to increase funding for child protective services.

DCFS social workers provide an array of services to abused and neglected children including finding and overseeing foster parents and working with the children’s birth parents, so that when possible the family can be reunited in a safe environment.

The State of California recommends that an ideal caseload for children’s social workers should be 14 per worker. Social Work, a well respected professional journal, recommends 16.

But as Thao Lam, a former DCFS social worker, explained in a recent column supporting the strikers, DCFS caseloads can reach as high as 50 per worker.

“In our line of work, leaving a job incomplete means a very real chance that a child is injured or killed,” said Lam. “For social workers with unmanageable caseloads, such a nightmare could be just around the corner.”

When bargaining on a new collective bargaining agreement began, members of Local 721 tried to bring these concerns to the attention of management.

Local 721 members also worked with community stakeholders to raise the awareness of the need for lower caseloads.

At a meeting of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, United Voices for Children, a coalition that included Local 721, urged the commission to support lower DCFS caseloads, to take advantage of new child protective services funding, and to work with community groups and institutions to make these services more effective.

Despite the community support for Child Safety Now, Los Angeles County negotiators balked at accepting the plan.

When the collective bargaining agreement expired in October, Local 721 members, 95 percent of whom had voted to authorize a strike, agreed to keep working in hopes that an agreement could be reached.

To show how important the issue of lower caseloads was to its members, Local 721 organized Unity Breaks–worksite rallies of union members during their breaks.

The Unity Breaks had an effect, and some progress was made toward resolving some of the bargaining issues. The county agreed to a 6 percent raise, and the union agreed to accept higher health care insurance premiums.

But the two sides could not agree on a reduction to caseloads.

After working two months without a new contract, the union on December 4 declared a bargaining impasse and prepared to strike.

The union issued a statement blaming the strike on the county. “County negotiators have acted in bad faith by unilaterally withdrawing their own proposals and failing to consider proposals made by children’s social workers,” read the statement. “The social workers are asking for simple, commonsense reforms to DCFS that would greatly improve their ability to protect children in need.”

The strike began on December 5. The union mobilized members to picket and rally.

Despite pressure, union members stuck together and maintained the strike.

After six days and with the help of a mediator, the county agreed to hire 600 new social workers by the end of the first year of the new tentative agreement.

Prior to the strike, the county had said that it planned to hire more social workers but had not carried through with its commitment.

Language in the contract ensures that the county carries out its commitment and will make caseload reduction goals enforceable.

The county also agreed to reduce social worker paperwork, which at times interfered with the workers’ ability to do their job.

When the county agreed to hire more workers and lower caseloads, Local 721 members returned to work. The timing of when the pay raise goes into effect is still being negotiated.

When the negotiations are complete, members will vote on whether to ratify the tentative agreement.

Support for locked out IKEA workers “snowballs”

Dockworkers carrying banners reading “Dockworkers in solidarity with IKEA workers” rallied at ten global ports crucial to the IKEA supply chain.

The dockworkers were taking part in the December 17 solidarity actions organized by the International Transportation Federation (ITF) to support workers at the IKEA store in Richmond, British Columbia who have been locked out for seven months.

The locked out workers belong to Teamsters Local 213.

The first solidarity rally took place in Sydney, Australia where members of the Maritime Union of Australia gathered to show their support for their fellow union members in Canada.

A statement issued by the MUA said that, “The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is angered and disappointed by developments in Richmond, British Columbia.”

At the Sydney rally, MUA National Secretary and ITF President Paddy Crumlin told the crowd that a fact-finding commission had found that IKEA in Richmond refused to bargain in good faith and has taken action suggesting that it wants to break the workers’ union. The report issued by the commission calls for IKEA to return to the bargaining table and bargain in good faith.

“We and our counterparts from around the world are gathering and demonstrating to put the case for a settlement that respects the needs, aspirations and strengths of IKEA workers,” said Crumlin.

Solidarity rallies also took place in Tokyo; Gothenburg, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Kristiansand, Norway; Aarhus, Denmark; Felixstowe, UK; Zeebrugge, Belgium;  Rotterdam, Netherlands; and Vancouver,  Canada.

In Canada, more than 100 union members from the ILWU, Teamsters, BC Federation of Labor, and other unions gathered at the Richmond IKEA store, then moved their demonstration to the docks of Vancouver.

In front of the Richmond store Grant Coleman of the Teamsters told the crowd that the international action against IKEA was a warning. We have global commitments to engage in sympathy actions at ports throughout the world that could disrupt IKEA’s supply chain, said Coleman.

“Things are snowballing,” said Local 213 member Keith Austin, who just returned from Sweden where he and other members of an international delegation publicized the Richmond IKEA lockout. “We’re supported by millions of unionized workers around the world.”

At the rally in front of the Richmond IKEA store, Gordan Adams, a member of ILWU Local 502, said that rank and file members of ILWU Locals 500 and 502 had raised $12,000 to support the locked out Teamsters.

After the rally at the store, the demonstrators moved to the Local 502 dispatch hall where Coleman told the ILWU members at the hall waiting for a shift change how much he and the Teamsters appreciated the support that the ILWU has given to the locked out IKEA workers.

He especially thanked Peter Lahay, of the ILWU who is also the ITF representative in Canada, for the effort he put into to organizing the international support for the IKEA workers.

Lahay called IKEA’s actions “inexcusable.”

“IKEA has put its workers on the street for seven months purely for retaliation,” said Lahay. “These workers exercised their legal right to vote down IKEA’s demands for a discriminatory wage system and cuts to family health care benefits. Now, IKEA is holding the workers hostage while they stand outside in the winter, at Christmas time.”

Rocky Thompson, business agent for Local 502, said he was proud of his union, which takes seriously the old union motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

“Today was one of the greatest days of my career as an officer of Local 502,” said Thompson. “The solidarity demonstrated by my local has definitely renewed my belief that there is strength in numbers.”

Thompson was especially proud of the rank-and-file members and casuals who donated money to the locked out workers. “You raised $12,000 for those workers,” said Thompson. “You should all be proud of yourselves, and be proud to be part of such a great organization. I know you all make me proud.”

In addition to the ILWU and MUA, dockworker unions that organized support rallies were the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, the Finnish  Transport Workers’ Union (AKT), the Norwegian Transport Workers’ Union, the  United Federation of Danish Workers (3F), Unite the Union, the Belgian Transport  Workers’ Union (BTB), ACV-CSC, Zenkoku-Kowan, and FNV Bondgenoten.

Women union workers do better than non-union counterparts

A new issue brief from the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that women who belong to unions make more money and are more likely to have benefits than their non-union counterparts.

“Women are on track to become the majority of the union workforce in ten  years, but their rate of unionization is dropping, along with that of men. Considering the great boost to pay and benefits that unions bring, it’s important that anyone who cares about the wellbeing of women workers also care about unions,” said Nicole Woo, who along with John Schmitt co-authored the brief.

According to the issue brief, entitled Women Workers and Unions,  women workers who belong to unions make 12.9 percent more than non-union women working in comparable jobs.

They are also 36.8 percent more likely to have employer sponsored health care coverage and 53.4 percent more likely to have an employer sponsored pension plan.

These advantages extend to all levels of the workforce no matter what level of education is required for the job.

But the biggest beneficiaries of union membership are women who work in jobs that require less formal education.

In fact, union women with a high school diploma are more likely to have health care coverage and a pension plan than non-union women with a college degree.

The authors of the brief arrived at their conclusions after reviewing wage, health care, and retirement data from the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

Their analysis of the data controls for such factors as age, race, industry, education attainment, and state of residence.

The issue brief was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of a report entitled “American Women: Report of the Commission on the Status of Women.”

The commission was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The report broke new ground by finding that job discrimination against women was a pervasive problem and that legislation and policy changes were needed to end this discrimination.

Amazon workers strike

Amazon workers in Germany on December 16 went on strike to protest low wages, company spying, and job speed up.

The strike, the latest in a series of rolling strikes, was also aimed at winning a collective bargaining agreement with Amazon.

More than 1,100 workers at two Amazon distribution centers in Bad Hersfeld and Leipzig and an office in Graban stayed off the job in support of the action. Those on strike represent about 20 percent of permanent workforce at the struck Amazon worksites.

Another strike at a distribution center in Werne is scheduled to take place on December 17.

Some members of the workers’ union, ver. di, traveled to the Amazon world headquarters in Seattle where they rallied on December 16 with members of US labor unions.

Amazon, whose most recent annual sales in Germany totaled $8.6 billion, has imported its US style of labor relations to Germany.

“The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure (speed up), and short-term contracts,” said Stephanie Nutzenberger, a ver. di board member.

Amazon workers have gone on strike four times since May.

Low pay has been one of the reasons for the strikes.

Ver. di wants Amazon to pay its distribution center workers the same as unionized workers in Germany’s retail and mail order sector.

The company currently pays its workers a lower wage comparable to wages paid in Germany’s logistics industry.

Pay, however, isn’t the only concern. Workers are under constant surveillance on the job and are continually pushed to do more.

“The workers are treated more as robots than humans,” said Markus Hoffmann-Achenbach, a ver. di organizer to the New York Times.

Conditions at Amazon distribution centers in Germany are not unlike those in the UK where a BBC investigation found that Amazon distribution center workers called pickers walk as much as 11 miles a shift and are expected to collect orders every 33 seconds.

The BBC quoted one of the UK’s leading experts on the effects of stress at work as saying that, “The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”

In Seattle, more than 50 US trade unionist rallied with ver. di members in Seattle. One of the ver. di members who travelled to Seattle for the rally was Nancy Becker, an American who has worked for Amazon in Germany since 2001.

“I’m coming to Seattle to dare (Amazon CEO) Jeff Bezos to try working as a picker for a single week,” said Becker to the New York Times. “I’m sure he would not survive.”

The rally at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters was co-sponsored by the Washington State Labor Council,  the ML King County Labor Council in Seattle, CWA, Teamsters, UFCW, SEIU, and Working Washington.

“We’re standing in solidarity with (the German Amazon workers),” said Kathy Cummings of the Washington State Labor Council to USA Today. “We are asking that Amazon respect the union there in Germany and negotiate in a way that is acceptable to ver. di.

George Kohl, senior director of CWA said that Amazon’s attempt to export its style of labor relations abroad is a dangerous precedent.

“Ver.di recognizes the danger of allowing the US model of suppressing workers’ rights and living standards to take hold in other countries, and is standing strong against this assault on workers,” said Kohl. “Members of CWA who have built a strong partnership with ver.di are supporting the strike by Amazon Germany workers and are letting them know, as ver.di members have promised us, we have your back.”

Ver. di has helped the CWA with its organizing campaign at T-Mobile, a German owned company.

Frank Bsirske, ver. di’s chairman, said that the Amazon workers strike and the US support for it sets a great example for all workers.

“(Amazon) employees are now taking the initiative,” said Bsirske. “These people are performing successful and reliable services day by day. With great justice, they call their employer for appreciativeness, respect, and a clear commitment to the collective agreement of the retail and mail order business.

“The act of solidarity of American unions for the strikes in Germany is a powerful sign that cooperation among workers is not bounded by national borders and continents. These protests are an encouraging response to the questionable methods of a global company like Amazon.”

Immigration activists occupy 200 congressional offices

Fast for Families ended on a high note when 1,500 supporters including union members and leaders entered the US Capitol and occupied 200 congressional offices to tell departing members of Congress that immigration reform and a path to citizenship must be at the top of their agenda when Congress reconvenes in January.

The fast began on November 12 when labor leader Eliseo Medina of SEIU and human rights and immigration reform leaders Dae Joong Yoon of NAKASEC,  Cristian Avila of  Mi Famila Vota, and  Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners led a group that set up camp at the steps of the Capitol and began fasting to call attention to the urgent need for immigration reform.

The fast ended on December 12 with a rally at the Capitol.

“We fast not out of anger, but out of faith, hope, and love,” said Medina at the rally. “We fast out of hope that we can touch the heart of (House) Speaker (John) Boehner so that he can reflect on the tragedy and the needless suffering and that he should act on his duty of a legislator and a Christian by allowing a vote on immigration reform.”

After the rally, fasters and their supporters entered the Capitol, sang the US Civil Rights movement theme song “We Shall Overcome,” and then split up into groups that visited and stayed in offices of Congress members who needed to hear their message.

Because of US immigration laws, more than 11 million  immigrants without  immigration documents are forced to live in the shadows of society even though their labor is essential to the US economy.

This shadowy existence and the danger that they can be arrested and held for deportation without warning makes them easily exploited, which in turn drives down wages for all workers.

“Reforming immigration will help protect all workers from exploitation and unfair competition,” read a statement of support by the United Autoworkers. “Without a pathway to citizenship, millions of workers are forced into a shadow economy and exploited by unscrupulous employers. When all workers are on equal footing, unscrupulous employers will not easily be able to pit one group of workers against another, driving down wages.”

Labor leaders including Larry Cohen president of CWA, Bob King, president of UAW, Mary Sue Henry, president of SEIU, and Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, fasted for 24 hours to show their support for immigration reform.

“Every day Congress kicks the can down the road and fails to address our broken immigration system, another husband is separated from his wife, another mother or father is separated from their children, another hardworking, aspiring American is detained and deported,” said  SEIU’s Henry.

During the monthlong fast, Fast for Farmilies drew support from a wide range of progressive groups.

“There’s no excuse for forcing millions of people to live outside the prevailing currents of our society, where they are frequently exploited and where they often suffer the worst effects of environmental pollution,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

“The men and women fasting are absolutely right: it is past time for the House of Representatives to take up comprehensive immigration reform,” said Interim NAACP President and CEO Lorraine C. Miller. “These activists are bravely shining a spotlight on the pain caused by our nation’s broken immigration system. This is not just a brown issue or a black issue – it is an American issue and a matter of human rights.  We must heed their calls and pass commonsense immigration reform now.”

” (We) stand in solidarity with this united family (of fasters for immigration reform), for the values that make our country a beacon for all who seek a life free from oppression,” said Arcelia Hurtado and Samantha Ames of the National Center for Lesbian Rights who fasted for five days in solidarity.

As the fast was ending, Fast for Families issued a statement that concluded:

“Our commitment to act, fast, and pray does not end today. We are more determined than ever to make commonsense immigration reform a reality. It is no longer a matter of IF reform will pass, it is a matter of WHEN. Until that time, we will not stop and we will not tire. We will never give up until 11 million immigrants have a path to citizenship.”

International delegation presents report on IKEA lockout

An International delegation traveled to Sweden on December 11 to present a report on the lockout of IKEA store employees in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. The locked out workers belong to Teamsters Local 213.

“IKEA has clearly violated its own code of conduct, as well as international labor standards”, said Peter Lovkvist, general secretary of the Nordic Transport Federation and a member of the international delegation. “Locking out and intimidating workers, and hiring lawyers with histories of attacking workers and unions – behavior I witnessed personally in  Canada – none of this is acceptable. IKEA would never treat its workers in Sweden this way.”

The report, entitled “How IKEA Is Hurting Families,” extensively details the findings of an international fact-finding commission that visited Richmond in November to learn about the lockout, now in its seventh month.

According to the report, relations between IKEA and its Richmond store employees began to deteriorate in 2007 after the workers successfully conducted a strike to stop the implementation of a two-tiered wage system that would lower wages for new employees.

Management instability has also contributed to the problem. Since 2007, there have been five store managers and six human resources managers.

Many of the new managers were brought in from outside the IKEA organization and brought with them a hostile attitude toward unions and union members.

Relations deteriorated more in 2010 when IKEA changed its outside counsel to an anti-union firm with ties to Labor Watch, a right-wing Canadian group that seeks to eliminate unions.

The company’s disregard for its workers reached a new low in May when IKEA Richmond locked out its workers after they overwhelmingly rejected for the third time a company offer that reduced salaries for new workers, reduced the workers’ life insurance benefit, cut worker sick days in half, and cut other benefits.

Since then, the company has aggressively sought to break the union by coercing union members to return to work under the terms of the rejected offer.

The company has also conducted an aggressive surveillance campaign against peaceful picketers, and according to the report, “has been found to be in breach of the British Columbia Labor Relations Code on multiple occasions throughout this dispute.”

“IKEA is holding us hostage,” said Keith Austin, a 27-year Richmond IKEA employee and member of the international delegation. “The company is refusing to let us return to work until we surrender many of our rights. It is unconscionable that this multi-billion dollar corporation has locked us out of our jobs. I came to Sweden to ask IKEA why it has hired lawyers to sit at the bargaining table in Canada and pretend to negotiate while our families starve at Christmas time.”

Austin spent his first day in Sweden handing out flyers about the lockout at an IKEA store near Stockholm. He was joined by another delegation member Grant Coleman of Teamsters Canada.

The delegation also presented the report to Lars-Anders Haggstrom, president of Handels, the union that represents IKEA workers in Sweden.

In additions to Austin, Coleman, and Lovkvist, the delegation is composed of Erin van der Maas,  International Transport Workers’ Federation, Tim Beaty, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Mathias Bolton, UNI Global.

The delegation is also trying to arrange a meeting with IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad so that the report can be presented to him in person.

The delegation wants Kamprad to understand that as the report puts it, “IKEA Richmond’s management has abandoned the stated values of the ‘IKEA family’.”

The report recommends that IKEA Richmond should return to the bargaining table in good faith and break its ties with the anti-union Labor Watch.

According to a media statement, the delegation is also urging IKEA in Sweden “to set a new voluntary standard for its employees in Canada and worldwide, by engaging with UNI Global (an international confederation of retail workers unions) toward a Global Framework Agreement, ensuring a common application of IKEA values.”

The international delegation will attend solidarity rallies in Sweden on December 17, the same day that other solidarity rallies will be held at ports around the world that handle IKEA products.

The Teamsters Coleman said that unless the dispute with IKEA is resolved global union solidarity actions will expand beyond mere gestures of support.

“When this becomes global, we will be going from solidarity to action,” said Coleman to the Swedish national public television station. “This will affect all the IKEA stores worldwide. They will suffer loss as never before.”

More taxi drivers organize

More taxi drivers are uniting to form organizations affiliated with labor unions.

Taxi drivers in Newark and Washington DC recently organized union affiliated groups. In Newark, CWA helped taxi drivers create a new organization called United Transportation Alliance of New Jersey (UTANJ). UTANJ members are also members of CWA Local 1039.

In Washington DC, Teamsters Local 922 helped taxi drivers organize the DC Taxi Drivers Association.

In addition to the two new organizations in Newark and Washington DC, taxi drivers have formed union affiliated organizations in Austin, Denver, Eugene, Oregon, New York City, Philadelphia, and Portland.

Taxi drivers across the country face similar problems: low pay, long hours, no benefits, and cab companies that charge excessive fees for cab rentals, insurance, and other things that drivers need to operate.

They are also vulnerable to violent crime and face competition from unregulated competitors.

Before Thanksgiving taxi drivers rallied in New Jersey to announce the formation of UTANJ.

According to a CWA newsletter, Newark taxi drivers “work 12-14 hour days, barely making minimum wage with fares coming in at a mere $6 to $10 per trip. If they’re lucky or put in extremely long shifts, they’ll make ten rides a day.”

“Newark’s taxi drivers work long, hard hours with little pay and even less protection,” said Chris Shelton, CWA District 1 Vice-President. “Right now, these hard-working men and women are forced to deal with all the negatives of being an independent contractor, yet they enjoy none of the benefits or protections. The UTANJ will change all that. The days of ripping these drivers off is over.”

Like those in Newark, most taxi drivers across the US are classified by their employers as independent contractors. As such, they usually do not have access to benefits like employer sponsored health insurance or pensions.

They’re status as independent contractors also makes it hard for them to have a unified voice in matters concerning their jobs.

But these union affiliated taxi driver organizations are giving the drivers such a voice.

When Washington DC began impounding taxis that did not have new dome lights and credit card machines required by the city, the DC Taxi Drivers Association organized hundreds of cab drivers to rally in front of the DC Taxicab Commission.

“Drivers are fed up with not having a say in the rules and regulations that affect their lives every day,” said Ferline Buie, president of Local 922.

Drivers were mad that the commission had been unresponsive to their complaints that the city was impounding  and ticketing taxis even though there was a shortage of the required equipment making installation impossible for some. There were also reports of vendors selling unreliable equipment and price gouging.

“The city is hell-bent on destroying our livelihoods at any cost,” said Jesse Black, a 40-year D.C. taxi driver. “This is an honorable profession that has a proud history in the District of Columbia of giving African-Americans and immigrants the ability to provide for their families. It’s shameful that the city wants to kill off our good, middle-class jobs.”

In Denver, taxi drivers have taken another approach. In 2009, taxi drivers affiliated with CWA Local 7777 formed a co-op and named it Union Taxi Cooperative.

At the time of its formation, more than 250 drivers, most of whom had immigrated from Africa, joined the worker owned taxi business.

“They came together to form and run their own company so that they can put a little more money in their own pockets, rather than paying someone else for the privilege of driving a cab,” said Phil Roselli, an attorney representing the drivers to the Denver Business Journal when the co-op was formed.

According to the Rocky Mountain News, at the time of its formation, Union Taxi drivers paid “$800 a month for insurance, meter and dispatch service – well under the nearly $2,100 that drivers . . . have to pay the (other) cab companies.”

CWA helped the co-op get started in a number of ways. For example, CWA legislative representatives succeeded in getting the legislature to amend  statutes that made it difficult for new taxi companies to get started.

The union also provide counsel and advice as the drivers maneuvered through the difficult Public Utilities Commission approval process.

“Having the backing of the CWA and the AFL-CIO was very important to us,”Ed Szmajter, one of the co-op’s founding drivers to the Rocky Mountain News. “And being in a regulated industry, (we’ll) need continued union help at the legislature.”

Unions sue BART after directors demand changes to ratified contract

Two unions whose members work at San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court charging that BART’s Board of Directors acted illegally when they refused to ratify a collective bargaining agreement unless the union agreed to remove a section that both sides had previously agreed to.

The board at its November 21 meeting voted to remove Section 4.8 from the collective bargaining agreement that ended a four-day strike in October by SEIU Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, BART’s two largest unions. Section 4.8 provides union members with paid family medical leave.

The unions and BART began negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement in May. It took two strikes and intense negotiations to reach a final agreement that included the provision on paid family medical leave.

The membership of both unions ratified the agreement, but BART’s board surprised the unions at a November 21 board meeting by voting to remove the family medical leave section from the agreement.

“The ratification process is not an opportunity for the Board of Directors to cherry pick the portions of a new contract that it likes and disregard others,” said Kerianne Steel, Local 1021’s attorney. “BART is bound by the total package agreement they negotiated.”

The agreement that ended the October strike included language that raised union members pension and health care contributions.

It was signed by BART’s chief negotiator Tom Hock, Assistant General Manager Paul Oversier, and Labor Relations Manager Rudy Medina, and included the paid family medical leave section.

Prior to final agreement, the two sides identified issues that needed clarification and worked together to reach an agreement on these issues.

During this time, board members were supervising and monitoring their representatives negotiating the agreement. They also approved each section of the agreement before their negotiators agreed to a final settlement.

During negotiations, board members had their chance to object to the retention of paid family medical leave, but never raised any concerns.

Before the conclusion of the agreement, BART’s negotiators put in writing that Section 4.8 was part of the agreement that ended the strike.

Members of Local 1021 and Local 1555 ratified the agreement with the paid family medical leave provision intact.

But at the November 21 meeting, the Board of Directors said that retaining the paid family leave provision would cost too much money and that it’s negotiators had made a mistake by retaining it in the new agreement.

The board refused to ratify the full agreement and told the unions to take the amended version back to the membership for a new vote.

Instead, the unions sued.

“The unions have bargained in good faith, ratified a complete agreement, and have been willing to work with BART Management and the Directors to address their
concerns,” said Pete Castelli, Executive Director of SEIU 1021. “But the response we’ve gotten from BART Management and the Directors is that workers
should just disregard the bargaining process and the contract that thousands of workers ratified.”

The union’s suit charges BART and its Board of Directors acted illegally in three ways.

According to the suit, the board acted illegally when it refused to sign the agreement and based its refusal on the questionable assertion that BART’s negotiators had made a mistake by including the paid family medical leave provision in the final contract.

The board also acted illegally when it refused to honor the final and complete agreement even though it closely monitored and supervised its negotiators and gave their approval to each section of the agreement before final agreement was reached.

Finally, it is illegal for the board to change unilaterally a negotiated agreement and then present these changes to the unions and their members as a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

“Time and time again, the unions have demonstrated a willingness to address the Board’s issues in order to reach a resolution,” said Antonette Bryant, president
of ATU 1555.  “That requires dialogue, but there’s been none. Instead, the directors decided to create further uncertainty and renege on the total
agreement they reached with workers.”

BART’s unwillingness to talk to its unions, according to their attorney, left them no choice but to sue.

Accenture’s shared services plan at the University of Michigan put on hold

The University of Michigan (UM) on December 2 announced that it is delaying implementation of a plan to eliminate 50 jobs and consolidate and centralize administrative services. The Shared Services plan was developed for UM by Accenture, one of the world’s leading privatization consulting companies.

UM’s announcement of the delay came after 1,152 UM faculty members signed a petition urging UM to stop the Shared Services project and severe its relationship with Accenture.

The University of Texas at Austin (UT) has proposed implementing a Shared Services plan similar to the one that drew the ire of UM faculty.

“The Shared Services plan at Michigan is similar to the one being proposed at UT. . . and it comes from the same source–Accenture,” said a media statement released by the UT Save Our Community Coalition (SOCC) that includes the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186, United Students Against Sweatshops, Workers Defense Project, Education Austin, the International Socialist Organization, and ULI.

The SOCC statement also said that UT’s Shared Services proposal would eliminate 500 jobs, ten times more than the University of Michigan’s, and noted that Accenture currently has “executives working in key positions within the administration of both universities” and “stands to make millions of dollars at both campuses if the plan is implemented.”

State funding for public higher education has not kept up with the growing demand for it. As a result, universities are looking for ways to stretch dollars. Consulting firms like Accenture have marketed Shared Services, which centralizes, consolidates, and eliminates administrative services jobs, as a way do so.

But what often gets lost in the sales pitch is the fact that converting to Shared Services opens new business opportunities worth tens of millions of dollars to companies like Accenture that promote themselves as experts in the managing the conversion process.

Unfortunately, the promised savings can be illusory while the cost of the so-called expertise is real.

Inside Higher Ed reports that UM paid Accenture $11.7 million to help the university implement Shared Services, which would have consolidated and centralized 275 administrative jobs and eliminated 50 more.

Six months ago, Accenture estimated that the consolidation, centralization, and elimination of administrative jobs would save UM $17 million.

By November, Shared Services estimated savings had been reduced by half and even that estimate may have been too high because it didn’t account for the millions of dollars that UM will have to spend for upgrades to and rent for the building that will house the consolidated services.

Critics of Accenture’s Shared Services plan objected to the secrecy surrounding its development. As the plan was being developed,  UM’s administration enforced a gag order that prevented department heads from discussing it with the wider university community.

There were also concerns about the close ties between Accenture and UM administrators, most notably Rowan Miranda, UM’s associate vice president for
finance who before his UM appointment led Accenture’s state and local government and higher education consulting business.

UM faculty members also argued that Shared Services would diminish their productivity.  Fawwaz Ulaby, an engineering professor who led the faculty petition drive, estimated that consolidating services would reduce faculty productivity by 10 percent to 20 percent because faculty would have to perform work previously done by support staff.

According to Ulaby, lost productivity would cause a reduction in research funding, which would cost the university more than the estimated savings.

Ulaby was also concerned that face-to-face interaction between faculty and support staff would be replaced by e-mail and phone calls.

Finally, faculty who opposed Shared Services feared that the interests of Accenture and other private consulting firms didn’t align with those of UM’s students, faculty, and staff.

“The University is not a corporation; it’s an academic institution,” said Ulaby to the Michigan Daily. “Trying to convert it to a corporation is detrimental to its mission.”

Those who signed the petition opposing Shared Services included former UM President James Duderstadt and several former deans and department heads.

UM administrators also received what the Daily calls “a slew of letters” from UM departments objecting to Accenture’s Shared Services plan.

Implementation of the plan was due to begin in April, but the depth and breadth of opposition caused UM’s administration to put implementation on hold indefinitely.

The opposition also caused the administration to rethink its relationship with Accenture.

The Daily reports that before the Shared Services delay was announced, Timothy Slottow, UM’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, told those attending a faculty meeting that, “the firm (Accenture) has not performed at the level administrators had hoped it would and (we) are ‘looking at ways to reduce (Accenture’s involvement’.”

Judge allows Detroit bankruptcy and possible pension cuts to proceed

A federal judge on December 3 ruled that Detroit’s bankruptcy could proceed and that the city could reduce pensions of retired employees in order to pay off its debts.

AFSCME, Detroit’s largest city employees unions, immediately appealed the judge’s ruling.

“It’s a sad day for the people of Detroit,” said Sharon Levine, an attorney for AFSCME, to CNBC. “We’ve already filed an appeal. We’re going to keep fighting for the pensions. We’re going to keep fighting for our members.”

Before Judge Steven Rhodes made his ruling, AFSCME members and community supporters rallied outside the courthouse, some holding signs that read, “Make the banks pay” and “Stop debt service to banks that destroyed Detroit.”

Some opponents of the city’s bankruptcy have argued that banks made predatory loans that contributed to the city’s financial difficulties. As an example, they cite a $1.5 billion pension certificate loan that UBS made to Detroit in 2005, a loan that eventually siphoned away millions of dollars in city revenue that could have been used for city services.

Inside the courthouse, AFSCME attorneys argued that the bankruptcy should not be allowed to proceed because the bankruptcy, which was filed in a federal court, interferes with the state’s sovereignty, and more specifically, that it puts pensions that are protected by the state’s constitution at risk.

The US Justice Department testified in court and submitted briefs arguing that the bankruptcy should be allowed to proceed even if it meant that retirees’ pensions would be reduced.

In his ruling, the judge agreed with the Justice Department, but cautioned the city that the pension cuts that the city proposes in its bankruptcy exit plan should not be too severe.

However, that admonition was not comforting to many Detroit retirees.

“It’s mind-boggling. It’s disgusting. It’s horrible,” said Mashuk Meah of Detroit, who worked for 34 years for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, to the Detroit Free Press. “There will be many people hurt by this. All I can do is pray that Kevyn Orr (the emergency manager overseeing the bankruptcy) is fair.”

Meah told the Free Press that the judge’s ruling could mean that he and his wife may lose their home.

The mainstream press has partially blamed Detroit’s overly generous pensions for the city’s financial difficulties, but the truth is that the average pension for Detroit’s non-emergency workers are only a modest $19,000 a year. Many if not most of these workers don’t receive Social Security payments.

The judge’s ruling could have a broad impact well beyond Detroit.

Detroit’s pensions were supposedly protected by the state’s constitution, which on the surface made them appear to be inviolable, but if Judge Rhodes’ decision is allowed to stand other protections meant to secure pension obligations could be rendered meaningless.

“This is one of the strongest protected pension obligations in the country here in Michigan,” said Bruce Babiarz of the Detroit Police and Fire Retirement System to the New York Times. “If this ruling is upheld, this is the canary in a coal mine for protected pension benefits across the country. They’re gone.”

The judge’s ruling allows Orr to proceed with formulating a plan for paying off the city’s creditors and exiting bankruptcy.

In addition to cutting pensions to pay off creditors, Orr’s plan will likely include a proposal to sell city assets to private investors.

Orr last summer said that he was considering a plan that would allow the city to sell its Water and Sewage Department.

The Detroit News reports that several private equity firms have expressed interest in buying the publicly owned water works, but only if they are allowed to increase rates that are currently protected by state law.

Whatever happens as a result of the Judge Rhodes’ bankruptcy ruling, AFSCME and community members opposed to the bankruptcy will continue the fight to protect the public’s interest.

“We are. . .  going to continue the struggle against the Detroit bankruptcy,” said Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network to the Free Press. “The citizens are very concerned about the fact that our mayor didn’t lead us into bankruptcy, our city council never voted for bankruptcy, but the emergency manager and (Michigan) Gov. (Rick) Snyder brought us to this place.”

Solidarity rally kicks off international support for locked out IKEA workers

Despite threats from IKEA’s lawyers, members of Teamsters Local 213, who have been locked out by IKEA for six months, rallied on November 23 to demand a fair collective bargaining agreement. They were joined at the solidarity rally by hundreds of other trade union members.

The locked out workers work at the IKEA store in Richmond, Britsh Columbia. The rally, which took place across the street from an IKEA store in nearby Coquitlam, marked the beginning of a worldwide campaign to support the locked out workers.

The IKEA workers have been fighting to protect their wages and benefits. The company, on the other hand, has insisted that the workers accept pay and benefit cuts.

“We’re standing here in soldidarity with the IKEA workers,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labor as he addressed the crowd, which was packed tightly on a narrow strip of land across the street from the Coquitlam IKEA store.

Sinclair said that he received a letter from IKEA’s attorneys a week before the rally. “(IKEA’s attorneys)  said that if you have a rally here, we’ll sue you,” he said. “We say bring it on! In this country we have a right to speak our mind and we have a right to have a rally.”

Sinclair noted that the IKEA lawyers who sent the letter also work for an anti-union group called Labor Watch.

Sinclair thanked the other unions whose members came to the rally and have walked the picket line with Local 213 members and urged people to continue the IKEA boycott.

“This isn’t a fight about Teamsters, it’s a fight about working people,” said Sinclair.

Out in the crowd, supporters held banners from their different unions including ILWU Canada, UNITE HERE, UFCW, Construction and Specailzed Workers Union, and Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union.

Peter Lehay of ILWU Local 400 talked about the solidarity actions that are being organized to support the locked out IKEA workers.

Lehay, who is also the Canadian national coordinator for the International Transportation Federation (ITF), a global federation of unions in the transportation industry, said that ITF has been publicizing IKEA’s lockout of its Richmond workers.

“We’re going to make sure that the IKEA brand is known around the world for how it treats its workers,” said Lehay. “It seems like if you’re an IKEA worker in Sweden, you get treated pretty well, but the farther away from Sweden you get, the worse the treatment that workers receive.”

Lehay said that IKEA in Turkey has resisted efforts by its workers to join a union even though the workers voted in elections supervised by the government to unionize.

In France, IKEA executives have been arrested for bribing police to spy on IKEA workers.

In Russia, IKEA caved into homphobia and withdrew catalogues that included pictures of a gay couple.

Lehay also said that representatives of ITF and Uni Global, an international federation of retail workers unions, will be meeting with IKEA’s Swedish executives to discuss the lockout in Richmond.

Dorothy Thompkins, a 20-year IKEA employees, Local 213 shop steward, and bargaining committee member, told the crowd that the lockout began on May 13 after workers rejected IKEA’s offer for the third time.

“I can tell you that negotiations were about IKEA trying to clawback what they could and us trying to preserve what we have,” said Thomkins.

Early on in the negotiations, IKEA tried to get the workers to accept a two-tiered wage system, something that that the workers rejected in 2007 during the previous contract negotiation.

“We went on strike in 2007 to eliminate a two tiered wage structure, and we won,” said Thomkins.

But IKEA tried to reintroduce it again in 2013. A two-tiered wage structure is bad for new and old workers alike, said Thomkins, and we rejected it again this year.

IKEA has subsequently withdrawn its two tiered wage proposal but has insisted that workers accept a new pay progression system that extends for some workers the length of time it takes to reach maximum pay to 20 years.

The company also wants to base pay raises on production and sales goals that the IKEA alone sets.

IKEA says that its offer is generous and points out that some workers at the store make $18 an hour to $20 an hour, but Thomkins pointed ot that the average work week for IKEA  Richmond employees is only 19 hours.

“That’s not enough money to raise a family on,” she said.

As the rally wrapped up, Anita Dawson, Local 213′ business representative, said that the lockout at IKEA Richmond is the longest in the company’s history.

Dawson said that IKEA is hiding behind the concrete walls that it erected when the lockout began and keeps those walking the picket line under constant surveillance.

IKEA needs to come out from hiding behind its walls and bargain a fair contract with its workers, said Dawson. That’s the only way that this lockout ends.